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The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
15 Nov, 2020

This blog by George Stevenson was written before the recent departure of Dominic Cummings, doubtless with a fair amount of clairvoyancy! We have even less to fear now. 

At his inauguration in 1933, President Roosevelt made his famous statement that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He was warning that in the depths of the Depression, anxiety and fear would paralyse thinking and leadership, and prevent the US taking the decisive action needed to build a recovery.

In 2020, the pro-EU campaign seems to be caught in a spiral of anxiety and depression, and of course there are good reasons for this. We have lost the argument - and can’t yet see a way to reverse this decision. Somehow, this all seems to crystallise around the persona of one person - Dominic Cummings. He is variously a genius, Machiavellian, a psychopath, and ruthlessly focussed on achieving his goals at any cost. He may be any of these things, and indeed, he does seem to have a gift for slogans and ideas that have an emotional resonance, but I want to show that he is perhaps not the nemesis we should all fear.

Cummings’ reputation seems to stem from the results of the EU referendum and the 2019 election, and of course, these were achievements in some sense, but I believe that these are not as impressive as they might first seem.

To win the EU referendum, he only needed to achieve just over 50% in favour of ‘leave’, which in the event is what happened. Of course, a large number of individuals voted ‘leave’, but not significantly more than those who voted ‘remain’ (a fact which is conveniently ignored in claims about the democratic legitimacy of the result). This is hardly a stellar result- say 60% - 70% in favour of leave would be quite impressive, given that most people tend to favour the status quo when asked questions like this.

In 2019, the shine had come off Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, with much of the optimism of 2017 gone, the Liberal Democrats failed to communicate their ‘revoke’ policy properly (although most tabloids would never have been onside), and most people were heartily sick of the machinations around Brexit. Against this background, and with a poorly-performing opposition, achieving a majority also looks less impressive- a brilliant strategist would have surely have achieved a larger majority. This was hardly a Thatcher or Blair size of majority.

Events since, from the drive to Barnard Castle, to refusing to fund free school meals during the holidays, have shown that governing a country, let alone in the middle of a crisis, is much more complicated than running a campaign. His advice to government isn’t actually very good, and he has a distinct lack of awareness of how he, and the government he serves, come across to others.

So why the history lesson? Well, if we believe that our opponents are cleverer or more ruthless than us, or are possessed of some super-human powers, then it can all too easily lead to feelings of fatalism, and a ‘why bother’ mentality. Pretty much every self-help and sports psychology book says that our thoughts and beliefs affect how we act, and are key to our success (or otherwise). That’s why I support the policy of seeking as close a relationship with the EU as possible, as a step along the road to eventually rejoining. However, I worry that this could lead to an overly passive stance, stuck in an unsatisfactory limbo, endlessly waiting for public opinion to turn.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting an immediate campaign to rejoin, which doesn’t have much public support at the moment. We can, however, start to make the case for as close an alignment with the EU as is possible, focusing on practical benefits, which should have wide support, and on shared European values. Whilst nothing is certain, if Boris Johnson’s government loses power in 2024, there could be a huge opportunity. In that case, a priority of whoever forms the government should be to renegotiate the agreement with the EU to ensure much closer alignment, perhaps even to the extent of rejoining the Customs Union or Single Market. But to do this, the politicians will need to know that there is public support for such a course. If they don’t feel this, then we may lose the best opportunity we have.

In his talk to London4Europe in September, Andrew Adonis said that there is no majority in the country for this type of Brexit. As the malign effects become more apparent in the next year, and the benefits turn out to be illusory, there is every chance that public opinion can shift. We can play our part in that shift of opinion.

So we need to ditch the horrified admiration and fear of Cummings and his tribe, and take a more clear-headed view. The Social Liberal Forum, in a report on the 2019 election said ‘this doesn’t mean Dominic Cummings is some unbeatable genius. He was simply equipped with the right tools and had planned sufficiently in advance, developing a small but powerful arsenal of tested messages that could be deployed in different situations in different constituencies, and delivered in a flood of agile, engaging and surprising ways by skilled creatives.’ So he can be beaten, and we just need to get better at making our arguments and deploying them more effectively.

This situation is not like occupation by a foreign power, or living in a dictatorship. It can and should be reversed, and so there is still everything to play for. Let us not fear fear itself.

George Stevenson

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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Andrew (Andy) Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2020-11-15 18:51:29 +0000